Finding your ground
PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:50 28 March 2014
You don't have to own your smallholding, says Rebecca Johns
If you’ve progressed beyond armchair smallholding (reading The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency, looking up sheep breed society details on the internet, and day dreaming about having a freezer stocked with your own produce) to keeping a few hens in the garden, then maybe you’re wondering what to take on next. Land is the obvious thing you need, although few of us could probably afford a move to a lovely country property with a few acres – so what can you do instead? Economists argue that there’s only a need to buy something if that’s the least cost way of getting the use of that thing. When it comes to land, the least cost way of getting the use of some is often to rent it, so I’m going to consider the pros and cons of renting land, how to go about it and briefly outline some of the common arrangements for renting land.
Renting land – the pros and cons
We rent the land on which we run a smallholding – six acres of fields and four stables/sheds, our patch is an edge piece of a larger estate with several farms on it, and a number of diversified activities as well as sheep and beef units. Our ground used to be grazed by ponies in the days when the farm also operated a stud. Some of the pros and cons of renting land will be related to that specific piece of land, while others are generic – the specific examples detailed below are from our own experience, and may not apply in every circumstance. You may be lucky, however, and find a few acres with excellent fencing!
Renting is cheaper than buying land – probably, but I’ve noticed in my reading of land available in the farming and local press, that anything suitable for horses is much more expensive than purely agricultural land. The cost of land will vary depending on the location, fencing, buildings, water, electricity, hard standing, access… but for grazing land, the rent could be minimal (especially where the owner is claiming the Single Farm Payment, see below) but could be 10 times as much for a stable block and horse paddocks.
You get the use of the land, without so much responsibility – particularly if you have an agreement with the landlord which says he is responsible for the upkeep of buildings and fences (see below).
You’re not tied to one bit of land – if you had to move house, or needed more or less acreage then it would be possible to give notice, move or adapt as necessary. We’re fortunate in being part of a larger estate, so if we needed an extra field for a few weeks (say, when the lambs are weaned) the estate is usually happy to accommodate this
The relationship between landlord and tenant can be a win-win one – in other words, beneficial to both parties. In our circumstances, renting allows us to fulfil our desires to be smallholders, but informally, we also gain a lot of experience helping with other estate tasks and the stock, while having experts in the form of our landlords to call if we have any problems or questions. It’s much less of a go-it-alone situation, and although we’ve learned a lot through experience, we also learn a huge amount from listening and watching and have added confidence knowing that we can seek help if we need it.
You may not need to purchase, or hire, machinery – again, if your agreement states that the landlord is responsible for rolling, harrowing, topping the ground and so on, then there’s less need to dash out and buy a tractor… unless, like my husband, the tractor is an essential part of smallholding!
You get what you’re given – fencing, water, buildings… You could invest quite heavily rectifying some of these things (in our case, we would completely re-fence the area) but the incentive to do so isn’t there, because it’s not your own land. Negotiation with the landlord can remedy some of these issues, so for example, a landlord may pay for the fencing materials, but the tenants put in the manual work.
Long term issues – if you wanted to plant an orchard for example, rented land might not be the most appropriate place to do this. Apart from the fact that the landlord may not want an orchard on his pasture, it may not be possible to go back in 10 years’ time and harvest the fruits of your labours!
Do get a proper agreement (see below) – boring, possibly expensive, time consuming and requiring some negotiating skills, but really necessary. I list some things to think about and specify in an agreement (see right) and how to find out more. You don’t want to find that the landlord suddenly wants your fields for a million free range chickens!
Less incentive to manage the grassland – especially if the landlord has responsibility for rolling, harrowing and so on. In these circumstances, you could find that you ask for the topping to be done in three months, by which time the thistles have seeded, you can’t see the sheep amongst the grass, and the landlord is fed up with you nagging!
Renting land – agreements etc There are a number of different arrangements that can exist between landlord and tenants – farm business tenancies, grazing agreements and licenses, herbage agreements, 364 day agreements, summer grazing….
Farm Business Tenancies (FBT), although not often used for smallholdings, still require some explanation. This can be an arrangement for usually 15 years, where a person rents, usually, a fully equipped farm with all its buildings, land and stock of silage and so on in order to run a business there. These are advertised in places like the Farmer’s Weekly and the Farmer’s Guardian, and anyone thinking of applying for one of these should take professional advice on what is involved, putting together a business plan and associated financial plans, financing the arrangement and so on.
Grazing agreements and licences come in various forms, and can be as varied as the land itself. All can be adapted to suit the particular site and requirements of the landlord and tenant (referred to as the licensor and licensee respectively). Commonly, there are herbage agreements which mean that a tenant buys the grass from the landlord. Specify what each party is responsible for, so you might get a paragraph which states something like:
the licensor agrees to… harrow and roll the ground, fertilise the crop as required, cut and spray thistles and other noxious weeds, mow or cut the grass, maintain hedges, ditches and drains…
Of particular importance in the present farming environment is the issue of the Single Farm Payment (SFP) – who claims it, and therefore, who is responsible for cross compliance measures. There might be a paragraph which specifies that the Licensor shall be the only party entitled to include the Premises within his claim under the Single Payment Scheme; that it is the Licensor who has the Premises at his disposal under the Single Payment Scheme.
Through the National Farmers’ Union’s helpline, NFU members can access example documents for a number of different grazing arrangements, such as a grazing licence where the landlord is claiming the SFP. These can be adapted to suit, but do get it thoroughly checked by a professional as well.
If you’re thinking about renting land, or entering into negotiations with a landlord, consider seeking professional advice from a land agent or solicitor. This might be expensive, but in the long run, could save a lot of time, money and stress. To find a land agent in your area, contact the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers
tel: 01594 832979 or look at www.caav.co.uk
As a tenant, you will need a CPH number as this is unique to the keeper of the livestock. Depending how far the land is from your home, or any other holdings, you may have one or more CPH numbers. Phone the Rural Payments Agency for more information
(0845 603 7777).
Anyone keeping livestock would be well advised to take out public liability insurance. The most economical way of doing this might be to add public liability insurance onto an existing insurance policy (such as your household one) but do check that it covers what you need it to, and is appropriate for land away from home. Check that the landlord has buildings insurance to cover any buildings you are renting, but you may want to consider contents insurance for anything you leave there.
As a person (whether it’s a tenant, grazier or licensee) involved in ‘agriculture’ in its widest sense, you will need to conform to all the relevant legislation. This includes animal welfare, identification, movement restrictions, waste regulations and so on.
So, getting the use of some land needn’t cost the earth, or a re-mortgage! Small parcels of land, especially with buildings, don’t appear on the market very often, or for very long, so if you’re interested in renting, keep your eyes on the local press, get to know a couple of land agents and/or big land owners in your area and be ready to take advantage of any opportunity that arises. Do make sure you have a proper agreement in place which offers security for both you and the landlord, and seek professional advice where necessary.
And after all that, remember to enjoy that parcel of land! n
Rebecca Johns Is a freelance farm secretary in Sussex, and training organiser for the Small Farm Training Group (www.sftg.co.uk)
This article is from the October 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
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